THE LIEUTENANT by Kate Grenville

Book Quote:

“New South Wales was not an open door, and he was not his own man. New South Wales was the possession of King George the Third. The commission he had given his governor awarded James Gilbert sovereignty over every man black or white, every object great or small, every relationship of whatever sort that might take place in his kingdom.”

Book Review:

Review by Mary Whipple (SEP 7, 2009)

Basing this fine novel about the settlement of Australia’s New South Wales on the real life and notebooks made by Lt. William Dawes from 1788 – 1790, author Kate Grenville subjects the empire-building attitudes of the Crown and its representatives to careful scrutiny and creates a novel filled with conflicts and well-developed themes. New South Wales was already inhabited by an aboriginal population which had its own language and culture when a thousand British officers and prisoners, both male and female, landed their eleven ships in Sydney Cove and took over land which had been the traditional homelands of the aborigines. Illustrating the arrogance of conquerors, these officers and officials imposed their harsh “justice” upon anyone who challenged their will and their national “destiny.” Believing that they were superior, not equals, they introduced themselves to the exceedingly shy native population through a demonstration of power, forever losing the opportunity to learn from a culture they regarded as inferior.

Lt. Daniel Rooke, the main character, a stand-in for the real William Dawes, is first introduced as a brilliant child who experienced the “misery of being out of step with the world,” and it is Rooke’s differences which infuse the conflicts of the novel. Tormented by his duller peers, he enlisted in His Majesty’s Marines as a young teenager, putting his extensive knowledge of astronomy to use as a navigator and sailing to the American colonies and the Caribbean. He was horrified by the routine treatment he saw of slaves in Antigua, and stunned by the gruesome justice he observed when a sailor who had merely talked of disobeying orders, but had not actually done so, was publicly hanged. When offered the chance to sail to Australia, however, Rooke realized that he might be the only astronomer in a position to see a comet which was expected to be in the Southern Hemisphere between October, 1788, and March, 1789. He volunteers, believing that “this was the orbit his life was intended to follow.”

Rooke is on the first ship that lands in New South Wales. Allowed to set up an astronomical observatory on a headland above the settlement, Rooke is happily alone with his calculations during the week, climbing down to base for Sunday dinner and avoiding most of the daily conflicts. It is his friend Gardiner who first describes the capture of two aborigines, “By God, you should have heard them crying out, it would break your heart. The ones left behind as we got away, they were screaming. The wretches in the boat crying out…We call them savages. But their feelings are no different from ours…they were wailing as if their hearts would break.” Stunned by the cruelty, Rooke realizes that any possibility of understanding between the Crown and the natives has been lost forever. On the personal side, Rooke can only wonder what he would have done if he had been directed to give the order to seize the two captives.

The aborigines soon begin to visit him in his isolation at the observatory, however, and he becomes friends with some children, keeping notebooks of their vocabulary, the grammar of their language, and the expressions used most commonly. (Grenville transcribes Dawes’s actual notebooks extensively here.) Isolated from the settlement, he is respected by his native visitors, and he recognizes that he is truly in conflict with his own peers at the most basic level. One former military friend illustrated “the impulse to make the strange familiar, to transform it,” while Rooke wanted “to enter that strangeness and lose himself in it.” His chaste relationship with a bright eleven-year-old Cadigal girl who wants to teach him her language and to learn from him, provides one of the most meaningful experiences of his life and some of the most touching passages in the novel.

In clear, unadorned prose, Grenville tells of life as it was and as an impartial observer would see it, never allowing her prose to take flight into realms of fancy. Firmly grounding her narrative in the human feelings and human costs of all who were involved in this sad chapter of history, she tells an important story which questions the meaning of “justice,” especially when it is applied to alien cultures which see such justice as cruelty. The conflicting emotions of sensitive people like Rooke, whose mission to conquer and subjugate are alien to their personal beliefs, illustrate the helplessness of those who would have changed course if it had been possible. Ultimately, Rooke is able to take the long view, however, realizing that “until you could put yourself at some point beyond your own world, looking back at it, you would never see how everything worked together.” A well-developed novel which explores the human costs to both sides of colonial conquest.

AMAZON READER RATING: from 57 readers
PUBLISHER: Atlantic Monthly Press (September 8, 2009)
REVIEWER: Mary Whipple
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Kate Grenville
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More on Australian history:


More on empire-building:



September 7, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Reading Guide, y Award Winning Author

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.